Activists disrupt Caterpillar shareholder meeting

Kristin Szremski, The Electronic Intifada, 11 June 2010

While pro-Palestinian activists and supporters of Israel lined opposite sides of South LaSalle Street outside the Northern Trust Building in Chicago on 9 June, James Owens, the outgoing CEO and Chairman of Caterpillar Inc., told a room full of shareholders the company was not responsible for the way Israel uses the bulldozers the company manufactures in the United States.

Owens made his remarks at the end of the annual shareholders meeting, which had been disrupted 14 times by individual protestors who stood up one by one and loudly proclaimed that the Israeli military uses Caterpillar’s D9 bulldozer to raze farmland, uproot olive groves and demolish homes, sometimes crushing people inside. As each activist stood, as many as five plain-clothed security personnel descended upon the speaker and physically escorted him or her from the room.

At one point, the audience started chanting, “Out, out, out” as activists were lead away.

Initially Owens stopped speaking with each outburst. But he attempted to speak over the twelfth protestor, Sandra Tamari, a Palestinian American activist from St. Louis. Undaunted, Tamari continued to talk until right before she was taken from the room; she turned and pointed a finger at Owens and at the board of directors seated to his right. The room fell silent as she said with charged emotion, “You should be ashamed! You should be ashamed. People are dying.”

“It is not the D9 that is killing people,” Owens said after the end of the business meeting, during the question and answer session. “People are dying in the Middle East and we’re sorry about that. We can’t help that.”

Owens maintained the company “can’t manage the four million pieces of equipment out there,” adding that if Caterpillar did not sell the machines to Israel, the bulldozers still could be purchased off the Internet.

In addition, Owens hid behind the US Foreign Military Sales program, which handles the sales of the CAT machines to Israel. “We’re not in the business of international relations. You need to take it up with Washington,” Owens said.

Several humanitarian organizations contend that since the D9 is sold through the FMS program the bulldozers qualify as weapons and as such Israel’s use of them to illegally demolish homes and target civilians violates the US Arms Export Control Act of 1976, which prohibits the use of military aid against civilians, according to a 2004 University of Wisconsin document on its investments in trust funds.

The D9 is no ordinary earthmover: it is more than 13 feet tall and 26 feet wide, weighs more than 60 tons with its armored plating, and can raze houses in a matter of minutes, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. The CCR is one of the organizations that helped Cindy and Craig Corrie bring lawsuits against Caterpillar and the State of Israel for the 2003 death of their daughter, Rachel.

An Israeli soldier driving a CAT bulldozer crushed Rachel as she was defending a home in Gaza, targeted for illegal demolition. The case against CAT was dismissed but a civil trial began in Tel Aviv in March.

In addition to being retrofitted to hold heavy machine guns and in some cases grenade launchers, many D9 bulldozers are now driverless and can be operated by remote control, according to a March 2009 article in The Jerusalem Post.

“The unmanned D9 performed remarkably during Operation Cast Lead,” a commander was quoted as saying in the article. The Israeli military also used the driverless vehicle, dubbed “Black Thunder,” in the 2006 war on Lebanon. The commander was not named in the article.

Israel has demolished some 24,000 homes using the D9 since it illegally occupied the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem in 1967, according to Joel Finkel of Jewish Voice for Peace, who introduced a shareholder proposal requesting a review of CAT’s global corporate standards.

“This means that Israel has intentionally made hundreds of thousands of people homeless. … For decades, its primary tool to accomplish this has been the D9 bulldozer, which our company builds and services solely to help Israel cleanse Palestine of its non-Jewish inhabitants by destroying their homes,” he said.

In 2003, Caterpillar’s sales and revenue totaled $22.8 billion, with more than half of that coming from overseas markets. This year, the company projects sales and revenues to reach as high as $42 billion, with a goal of $100 billion by the year 2020. Dividend payouts have increased 125 percent since 2003, according to the Quarter 1 2010 analyst conference call, filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission. While CAT executives point to emerging markets such as Latin America for the company’s recent growth, revenues were down by about 22 percent in the first quarter of 2010 in the Europe, Africa and Middle East sector compared to the same period in 2009.

The shareholder proposal asked Caterpillar to amend its current policy, the “Worldwide Code of Conduct” — which does not include language pertaining to international human rights — to conform with international human rights and humanitarian standards, according to the proxy statement filed with the US Security and Exchange Commission in April.

Shareholders have been submitting proposals to the annual shareholders meeting since 2004, when members of the Catholic organizations Sisters of Loretto and the Ursuline Sisters submitted a proposal in 2004 asking CAT to probe how Israel used the bulldozers. Then, the proposal was supported by a mere four percent of shareholders; 20 percent supported the current proposal Wednesday.

That the Israeli military uses the bulldozers has been well-established. Now, however, the military is taking things a step further. The Israeli military is now conscripting Caterpillar mechanics as “reservist soldiers” so they can maintain the machines on the front lines in an Israeli military operation, according to a November 2009 article in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

“During Operation Cast Lead and before, during the Second Lebanon War, our staff essentially volunteered, and were nearly at the front in order to care for the equipment. Sometimes they risked their lives,” Yossi Smira, director of Zoko Shiluvim, which owns the Israeli company that supplies the armored bulldozer, said in the article.

When a reporter asked Owens during the question and answer session whether he was personally affected by stories that mechanics are being conscripted as soldiers or that disabled people were crushed to death when bulldozers collapsed their homes around them, he said, “Absolutely. It’s tragic. But we can’t manage four million pieces of equipment out there.”

Meanwhile, the expelled activists were convened in an alley near a back door, waiting to receive their cell phones and other electronic items, which had to be checked prior to the meeting. They waited for more than two hours. And when a guard finally brought their items, he brought them from the fifth floor — one at a time.

The group of 14 was convened by Matt Gaines of Chicagoans Against Apartheid in Palestine. Activists travelled from Boston, St. Louis and Louisville to attend the shareholders meeting.

The only ticketed offense during the day came when Jeff Pickert of Chicago was cited by Chicago police for “incitement” after a pro-Zionist protestor punched him in the chest. Pickert was not allowed to file a complaint against the man who hit him, he said.

Kristin Szremski is the director of media and communications for American Muslims for Palestine. She is also a freelance journalist based near Chicago.

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